After five months of self-imposed exile, opposition leader Joshua Nkomo returned to Zimbabwe today, where the senior founder of the national independence movement faces an uncertain personal and political future.

Nkomo, the leader of the opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union, was met at Harare Airport by senior officials of his party at a low-key reception, The Associated Press reported.

Nkomo returned from exile in London to the country he fled in March claiming that the government of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was seeking to kill him.

His return sets the stage for an emotional confrontation Wednesday in Parliament, where Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union has presented a motion to strip Nkomo of his legislative seat because of his prolonged absence. Nkomo, regarded by some Zimbabweans as the father of their country but by others as a sellout who refuses to reconcile himself to political defeat, said he would attend Wednesday's session. There was no word on whether Mugabe, Nkomo's longtime rival and one-time uneasy ally in the independence struggle, also would be there.

Besides expulsion from Parliament, Nkomo also faces possible arrest on a number of charges under investigation when he left, including allegations that he violated currency restrictions. Nkomo has contended that the allegations were triggered by his outspoken opposition to the government's crackdown on dissidents in his native Matabeleland.

Hundreds were killed earlier this year during the Army's antidissident campaign, which included a March 5 raid on Nkomo's home that led to his flight across the border to neighboring Botswana.

Nkomo returned home even though he apparently has not reached agreement with the government on either the parliamentary expulsion or the possible police charges. "There is no such secret deal," Nkomo told the British Broadcasting Corp. in an interview yesterday.

Government spokesman John Tsimba also denied that any agreement had been reached, despite months of secret contacts.

Nkomo's return could be a move toward the long-sought reconciliation between his supporters and those of Mugabe, who won a landslide victory in Zimbabwe's first election after independence in 1980. But there were indications that the deep split, which dates back to 1963 but was papered over during the armed struggle and the first two years of independence, would continue. Eddison Zvobgo, minister of legal and parliamentary affairs, said last night that the government would not drop its drive to remove Nkomo from Parliament.

Nkomo's decision to return appeared to surprise both the government and many of his own supporters. Josiah Chinamano, who has been acting leader of Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union in his absence, said he had not been certain of Nkomo's return until he received a phone call from the party's head yesterday morning. Members of Nkomo's family and entourage, interviewed at his Bulawayo home in southeastern Zimbabwe last week, said they had no indication when he would return.

Chinamano said before Nkomo's arrival that notice had been too short to arrange for a welcoming rally. But another party leader said it had been decided that a show of public support would be "imprudent" given the uncertainty surrounding Nkomo.

The general view here was that Mugabe's government, which branded Nkomo a coward when he fled, preferred the opposition leader to remain in exile, hoping that his power to influence events and supporters back home would fade.

But Mugabe, who once accused Nkomo of plotting a coup against his government, may have paved the way for the opposition leader's return when he told a press conference last Friday that Nkomo probably would not be imprisoned if he came back. "He might pay a little fine," said Mugabe. "He is free to come back, and we will not molest him unduly." Spokesman Tsimba said yesterday that the government had nothing to fear from Nkomo's return. "Nothing has changed," he said. "The situation in Matabeleland is now under control, and his coming won't make any difference. He's just another citizen going back to the country he left."

Nkomo is expected to present Parliament with a proposal for a "Conference of the Peoples," to be chaired by Mugabe and to bring together large numbers of Zimbabweans to discuss the country's problems and draw up a national program "for peace, unity and progress."

The proposal first was contained in two letters Nkomo sent the prime minister from London in June. The letters included a list of grievances and accusations, but also a poignant personal appeal addressed to "Robert." Nkomo wrote, "Although I feel I and my family have had to endure personal abuses and suffering at your hands, I still say to you from my heart, we must put the interests of our country and people first and find a way to rescue the nation from the tragedy we are steadily but surely slipping deeper into." Mugabe reportedly has not replied.

Interviewed two weeks ago in London, Nkomo gave no indication that he planned to return soon to Zimbabwe. Although he accused the government of plotting his death--a charge Mugabe emphatically has denied--Nkomo said he was not bitter. "I am not against the government," he said. "I did nothing against the government. But it was the government that tried to take my life."